I have a 30 yr. old son and a 10 yr. old daughter with an assortment of children in between. I’ve been doing school math for 25 years. Some of my children have math brains, and some have verbal. My youngest daughter is definitely verbal. She was born in China with a cleft palate, so she never spoke Chinese. I brought her home just as she turned three and taught her sign language which she used extensively for about three years. I’m convinced that the early use of signing and spelling gave her the verbal edge that she has. I also believe that spending three years as an orphan in China stunted her math understanding. American parents teach their children number sense through games often without realizing that they are teaching math. She missed out on early hand/eye coordination, colors, numbers, shapes and manipulation of objects. Even so, her first years of math showed steady learning.
This year, in fifth grade, she seems to have forgotten everything. She struggles with determining whether to add or multiply, divide or subtract even in the middle of a problem. The multiplication tables she knew by rote two years ago are almost forgotten. She’s counting on her fingers again. I’m stymied by these developments. The only change has been California’s switch to the Common Core curriculum.
In a parent/teacher conference with my daughter yesterday, the teacher’s solution to my daughter’s confusion was to tell her to draw equations that she has difficulty with. That is, draw rows of ten boxes for each number in every equation so that she can count each number and find the answer. Unbelievable. Create a grid for four digit numbers in multiplication and count the answer. I looked at my daughter and said, “No. Don’t do that.” Drawing a grid will slow her down, add more possibilities for error, and take more time. I told her to memorize the multiplication tables so that she can tell immediately what the answer is. I’ve taught all my children that math should be done as quickly as possible. I struggled with math until early adulthood when I abandoned the odd machinations taught in school for a more organic calculation process. I don’t use a calculator, and I can calculate complicated equations in my head more quickly than many of those who do.
Most of my daughter’s homework revolves around the question of reasonableness. At 10, she barely understands the concept of reasonable, let alone how a math question can be reasonable without actually doing the math. Here’s an actual question from a homework page, the entire question:
Is 16.7 a reasonable sum for 7.5 and 9.2?
There’s no math here. No suggestion of estimating. No adding before considering reasonableness. Just a vague question about a simple math problem. She couldn’t do it. Every night I sit with her and repeat “just do the math, don’t worry about the rest of the question, do the math, then we’ll figure out what they want you to say.” Even the teacher has resorted to telling the kids not to worry about these questions except to know that they will be on the standardized tests, so they should at least recognize them.
I’m not opposed to asking a student to think about why numbers work the way they do; what I am opposed to is the lack of attention given to the developmental ability of the child. Not all children are ready in elementary school to reason through math. Most children need to learn by rote before they can reason. Common Core asks too much too soon. Teach the child how before asking why.